Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 4

Jay C.

Colburn II GOVT 312

12/15/10

Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis, 2010 Book Review by Jay Colburn

"Either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us" (168). This passage is one of the many pithy one-liners from Bernard Lewis' most recent publication, Faith and Power: Religion and Power in the Middle East. A classic Lewisian quotation, it is a prime example of an overly simplistic conclusion that could prove to have drastic consequences, especially if applied in the policy world. A professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and intellectual inspiration for certain policies of the former George W. Bush administration, Bernard Lewis is one of the world's most renown scholars on Islam and its history. Faith and Power is an edited volume of various lectures and articles, some unpublished before in English. Despite his controversial characterizations of the relationship between Christianity and Islam, Lewis' analyses do address some of the key issues regarding religion and the government with some level of equity. This volume's thirteen chapters deal with a number of aspects of Middle East politics and religion that are frequent topics of discussion in academic and policy circles, including Islam and democracy, the relationship between Islam and the West (or Christiandom, as Lewis would say), Judaism, gender issues, and freedom and justice. It is not a very cohesive compilation, as many of the themes and examples given within each chapter greatly overlap; two of the chapters even have the same title, "Europe and Islam." The book is also lacking sources, containing neither citations nor a bibliography. Lewis draws some questionable conclusions and approaches the study of the history of Islam from a rather Eurocentric and retrospective point of view, and the lack of references to support his claims make them even more untenable. Before even digging into the first chapter of the book, Lewis makes a number of contentious remarks. The Foreword begins by quoting the Christian scripture, Matthew 22:21: "Renderunto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's" (xi). Lewis uses this particular quote (more than once) to juxtapose what he claims is a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam, specifically in their understandings of the separation of church and state.1 He explains that when Christianity was founded, there were two separate authorities, each with different laws and institutions and each informing different aspects of life; during the formation of Islam, however, no distinction was made between the religious and political leader, namely in the figure of the Prophet Muhammad. Lewis' entire framework for approaching the subject of faith and power, focusing on Islam and Christianity, but on Judaism as well, is filtered through this reasoning. Viewing the world as divided into disparate civilizations, Lewis makes frequent reference to the civilization of Christendom and even discusses the establishment of "Christianity as the religion of the state" (46) under Emperor Constantine in 313 AD, contradicting the opening paragraph of the book. Even without this self-contradiction, the religious institutions such as the Catholic Church have
1

This is the standard terminology used in popular discourse and at times in Faith and Power, although the Lewis does explain that there is no Islamic institution comparable to the Christian church.

Jay C. Colburn II GOVT 312

12/15/10

attained significant political power at different points throughout history, and some modern European states, including Great Britain, Greece, and Denmark, still have established churches, even if in name only. Another of Lewis' main arguments that he references in multiple chapters asserts that Islam is the basis of not only personal identity, but also loyalty and authority, for Muslims. Lewis explains that the events and conditions in which Islam was founded and expanded have had a lasting
effect on Muslims to this day, particularly in terms of their self-awareness. Two examples are provided in defense of this assertion; the first is from a 17th century note out of the Ottoman Empire describing military officers on a mission in Vienna being escorted by "five infidel officers" (xv); the other example is also from the Ottomans, from a 19th century newspaper which describes an accident in which "one unbeliever was injured" (xv). While these are indeed both examples of Muslims distinguishing themselves using religious terminologies, one cannot make such a broad generalization from two such examples. Not only are the examples both quite dated and therefore not necessarily representative of how modern Muslims may self-identify, but Lewis does not even offer examples from different parts of the Muslim world; this type of self-perception could be a purely Ottoman phenomenon without other cases to verify. Also, for someone who often works with historical texts in different languages, the author should acknowledge the possibility that various contextual factors or linguistic differences could account for using such terminology. Two other factors, one international and one internal, are provided as further evidence that the ultimate source of identity, loyalty, and authority is Islam. Bernard Lewis offers the examples of Muslim nations grouping themselves into the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in the United Nations and political parties that label themselves as Islamic parties. While it may be true that no other UN coalitions rally themselves around religion, this does not imply that religion is the ultimate or sole source of identity; religion may be just one facet through which Muslims derive identity, loyalty, and authority. An alternate explanation for the source of personal identity for Muslims and the nature of religion and politics in Islam is investigated in a book released this year by Robert D. Lee called Religion and Politics in the Middle East: Identity, Ideology, Institutions, and Attitudes. Lee rejects Lewis' claim of an "intimate connection between faith and power" (xiii), or religion and politics, in Islam. In fact, the concept of religious and political identity being one in the same ended with the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 AD, according to Lee; subsequent losses of territory under the Abbasids meant that the umma, the community of believers or the entire Muslim world, extended beyond the political boundaries of the kingdom. This non-uniformity of religious and political boundaries resulted in the bifurcation of religious and political identities, which Lee claims are now mutually influenced by the modern nation-state (Lee, 12-13). This framework for understanding faith and power in Islam stands in sharp contrast to Lewis' and provides a thought-provoking alternative to the source of identity for Muslims. A common theme throughout Faith and Power is the inherent antagonism between the Islam and Christendom. Lewis frames the relationship between Islam and Christianity as one of hatred and rivalry since the beginning of Islam, a "clash of civilizations," a phrase which Lewis coined but was adopted and popularized by Samuel Huntington. Islam is often seen as the heir to Christianity and Judaism, with all three having been established in the same region and around similar influences. As neighboring civilizations, the expansion of Islam came at the expense of Christian territory; according to Lewis' characterization, the Crusades were merely an attempt by Christendom to "reclaim" their lost territory. If this dynamic truly explains the relationship between the two religions, or civilizations, why then are
2

Jay C. Colburn II GOVT 312

12/15/10

Christianity and Judaism not diametrically opposed? Given Lewis' logic, would not all neighboring civilizations or civilizations who began in the same area be enemies? This line of thinking shows that while the author's analysis of Christianity and Islam's relationship includes instances and periods of strife, their relationship, especially in modern history, is quite complex and such superficial explanations do not suffice. As in other of Bernard Lewis' books, numerous instances of oversimplification can be found in Faith and Power. While attempting to simplify centuries-long histories and complex topics into single sentences or sound bites, some of the author's examples end up being reductionist. For example, in discussing money and power, Lewis writes that "in America one uses money to buy power, while in the Middle East one uses power to acquire money" (68). Despite his acknowledgement of this oversimplification, such broad generalizations of these complex issues do not accurately represent the world. There are also similar cases of generalizations that are accompanied by no explanation or reasoning. After very briefly touching on oppression, dictatorship, and freedom movements in Iran and Iraq, Lewis states that "democratic ideas have deep roots in these countries, and given the chance, they may soon prevail, and in so doing, inspire others" (130). This assertion seems to come out of nowhere and is not supported with evidence to back up the claim. Similarly, at the end of the chapter titled "Freedom and Justice in Islam," which focuses on elements of Islamic society that could be conducive to democracy, Lewis' message and tone seem to take a turn as he warns "either we bring them freedom, or they destroy us" (168). One of the most important criticisms of Lewis' Faith and Power stems from his treatment of the Muslim community as a whole. With over 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide today, it seems absurd to try to draw even a single conclusion that would apply to every Muslim. Throughout the centuries that Islam has spread across the globe, different histories, political systems, and cultures have influenced Islam, its role in society, its meaning to individuals, and its role in identity formation; such diversity has resulted in the probability, if not guarantee, that Muslims from Indonesia, Oman, and Senegal each have very distinct understandings and beliefs regarding Islam. Lewis' essentialist assumptions, that all Muslims' personal senses of identity, loyalty, and authority are derived from religion or that a cohesive Islamic civilization even exists, is a major weakness of Bernard Lewis' work. Faith and Power does provide a handful of important and useful observations, however. In the first chapter that analyzes Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa, Lewis is straightforward in declaring that "at no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism or murder. At no point do they even consider the random slaughter of uninvolved bystanders" (9). The author is judicious in his treatment of the basic Islamic texts, the Qur'an and the Sunnah (a collection of the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad). Lewis also takes issues with the common use of the term fundamentalist to describe certain Islamic beliefs or movements. He explains that the term originally comes from American Protestant movements of the early 20th century that wanted to distinguish themselves from mainstream Protestantism. Using the word fundamentalist when talking about Islam is therefore "inappropriate and even misleading" since it refers to "doctrinal issues quite different from those that concern Muslims" (114). However, alternatives like Islamist and Islamism can be even more problematic, and since today the word is much more often associated with Islamic movements than Protestantism, Lewis adopts its usage. One final minor criticism lies in the editing of the volume. Since each chapter is either a lecture or article of Lewis' from the past twenty years, there is extensive overlap and repetition that occurs throughout the book. When reading Faith and Power from cover to cover, the reader gets a sense of dj vu seemingly every chapter as not just similar arguments but identical quotations and entire passages are repeated. It seems that one only needs to read half of the book in order to ascertain all of
3

Jay C. Colburn II GOVT 312

12/15/10

Lewis' arguments. Despite criticisms of Bernard Lewis' approach in analyzing certain Islamic concepts and themes, Faith and Power proves to be useful in highlighting and investigating some of the foremost questions involved with the complex and controversial topic of religion and politics in the Middle East.

Sources Lee, Robert Deemer. 2010. Religion and Politics in the Middle East: Identity, Ideology, Institutions, and Attitudes. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Lewis, Bernard. 2010. Faith and Power: Religion and Politics in the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press.